A Weekend with Nature: Stories from Sooke

Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?

To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.

En route, Chum and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style,  the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.

On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of  childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.

A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.

For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.

Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. While Chum proceeded to free-climb a rock face over the water, I watched a man and his carer tentatively test the clear water in their bathers before I commenced my own climb onwards (above dry land).  Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.

Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.

As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”

“Oh!” Chum and I replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.

Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…

Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.

For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.

“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked younger than me. I’ve never been one to call a girlfriend “babe”, “hun” or even “lovely”; it just doesn’t feel natural to me, I’ve never felt “qualified” to do it. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.

Chum was stuffed after the main, but not me. I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. Chum shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Chum conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.

When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.

Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.

On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.

We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed. Chum and I looked at each other in alarm.

“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.

“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” Chum remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.

Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.

“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”

The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.

We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.

At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.

Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.

This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if Chum got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…

Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.

I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.

No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.

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Descent into the Deep: A Daring Four-Wheel Drive in Canyonlands National Park

Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers,  it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My boyfriend and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.

It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.

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The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey. (You can catch a short video of it here.)

Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.

If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!

Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch,  giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.

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The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?! (Props to Andrew for driving it!)

Further into the park,  Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?

After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages. We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time. We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.

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Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.

Chasing Angels & Discovering the Supernatural in Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved a never-ending life that would invite them into a prestigious realm of supernatural wonders.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

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The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

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Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

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There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

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Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

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Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

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At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

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Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

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I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

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With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” Andrew conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon, exhausted by this final exertion of my recently acquired superhuman powers.

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If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

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More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.

The Chiefly Outdoor Appeal of Squamish

 

Situated between the bustling city of Vancouver and the ski-haven of Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway is the district of Squamish. Its name is approximate to the language of the First Nation people who were the original inhabitants of the valley since around 5000 years ago. Navy explorer George Vancouver encountered Howe Sound in 1792 during his expedition along the Pacific Coast, but the first European settlers arrived in 1888.

The district of Squamish spreads over various villages – Downtown, Dentville, Valleycliffe, North Yards, Garibaldi Estates. Whilst cafes and pubs will have their locals, I didn’t detect a huge sense of community around town. Perhaps the autumn season had dragged everyone into a slumber state, but it all felt a bit flat. This sense of detachment wasn’t helped by the unease of access to other villages without a car. Cabs cost around $15 or you can take local transit for $1.75 a ride. Without a car, options for getting out to Whistler and Vancouver are limited to coach services from Greyhound or Pacific Coach Lines. A journey to Whistler takes 40 minutes.

Many people live in Squamish and commute to work in Vancouver which is 68km (1 hour) away to avoid the higher rent prices, but housing availability is falling here. Residents are also concerned by the lack of available jobs which is an additional contributor towards forcing people to leave. Squamish previously had a large logging industry which eroded after closure of the pulp mill. My Air BnB host appeared to be one of the luckier residents in financial terms, having a job as an estate agent in town.  There is definitely hope for more investment in public infrastructure to help create more jobs and reduce the gap between high and low wage-earners. The Liberal Party’s promise of $125 in funding towards infrastructure development certainly appealed to voters here, the majority of whom chose Pam Goldsmith-Jones as their MP in the October 2015 federal election.

As a consequence perhaps of the lack  of material industries, tourism is now the main source of income for the local economy. Squamish is considered to be the outdoor recreation capital of Canada. The opportunities for climbing, hiking, mountain biking, triathlon and windsports are aplenty and are celebrated during the summer months through various festivals such as the ‘Test of Metal’ bike race. A music festival is also held in August which featured the likes of Drake in 2015.

There are eight provincial parks in Squamish, one of which is the Stawamus Chief park popular with climbers for its challenging granite rock cliff-faces. One of the largest granite monoliths in the world, hikers can tackle the ~5km return hike up to the three peaks of the Chief, which takes roughly 4 – 5 hours to complete depending on your fitness level and how many peaks you target. The trail leads you on a steep ascent of around 600m elevation gain that involves stairs, ladders and rope/chain-assist sections. It will be worth the aching thighs when you reach the top of the fir tree-dotted dome and are greeted by wonderful views of glistening Howe Sound and surrounding snow-capped peaks.

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Less aesthetically pleasing is the view of the tired-looking town below. It’s almost as if a jumble of characterless box buildings have been squashed hurriedly amidst great scenery, and they look quite out of place surrounded by such mighty natural superiors. (The photo below was one of the more flattering shots!)

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Expect wobbly knees on the way back down the trail and near the bottom, take a detour off to the left towards Shannon Falls Provincial Park for views of the pretty waterfall there.

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Experiences like the Chief hike certainly help point a traveller’s compass in the direction of Squamish. Whilst often overlooked by young tourists in favour of the commercial zeal and party-town feel of Vancouver and Whistler, there is something appealing about the modest urban development of Squamish, as this simply helps emphasise the range of outdoor activities available from the surrounding geographic features. The Squamish landscape has been featured in films such as Free Willy and Happy Gilmore. It’s easy to understand why people choose to live here – for the distance from its loud neighbours and the comparative quietness, and for the access to fresh, scenic outdoor areas and a subsequent healthy lifestyle. It’s therefore easy to understand why rising house prices and decreasing job opportunities are such a concern for residents.

A huge congregation of bald eagles roam Squamish between November and January. If wining and dining is your thing (and you have a designated driver for the evening!) there are also a few varied restaurants to choose from as well as pubs brewing local craft beers. Otherwise, autumn is perhaps not the best time to visit should you want to get a lot of outdoor activity out of Squamish. I look forward to returning one day in the summer when there is more of an energetic buzz around the place and warmer weather for getting out and about.

 

 

 

An Autumn Weekend in Whistler for the Non-Skier

Host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler is a commercialised town that thrives off the stream of tourist activity which mounts in the run-up to winter. It’s similar in its appearance and character to the Rocky Mountain emerald of Banff in Alberta (think Swiss-style chalets and designer shops). Skiing is the main attraction here, but if powder isn’t your thing, don’t panic! There are still plenty of things to do on a long autumn weekend in Whistler without getting on the slopes.

Activities all Around

As an Olympic host city, you can expect premium quality from Whistler when it comes to available activities.

Hiking options are aplenty for all levels. You can join part of the 180km Sea-to-Sky trail which runs between Squamish and D’Arcy. A segment of the 33km section running through Whistler passes three lakes: Alpha, Nita and Alta, all of which have their own parks for eating and leisure. Trails are mainly flat and paved, attracting either those who fancy a slow stroll accompanied by coffee flasks and gossip with a friend, or those wanting an early morning solo powerwalk. Experienced hikers can attempt the more challenging 16km-return Rainbow Trail which starts from Rainbow Park on Alta Lake.

The west side of Alta Lake provides a great view of the mountains, even if they’re not sprinkled with snow. Kayakers and paddle-boarders can often be seen cruising along the water. Lost Lake is a secluded place where tourists escape to from the hustle and bustle of Whistler Village, and youths hang out and play guitar on the beach. It provides a great running loop for burning off the sweet treats that will inevitably find their way into your stomach if you visit Whistler.

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For those wanting to move at a faster pace, Whistler is also great for cycling. There are fun gravel routes for off-road biking near Lost Lake. If you stay at UBC Lodge in Whistler Creekside, bikes can be rented for $20 a day.

If you prefer more laid-back sports, Whistler is not shy of golf courses. There is also the swanky Scandinave Spa for those in need of a massage after a long day of hiking. Those tight on pennies don’t have to splash out though ($162 Deep Tissue Package – ouch!); UBC Lodge residents have free access to the hostel’s spa and sauna.

Fill me with Food

There are plenty of eating options available in Whistler Village that cater for various budgets and world tastes.

For a cheap and cheerful breakfast that will fill you up until the late afternoon, I recommend heading to Gone Village Eatery in Village Square where you can have hearty meals for around the $10 mark. Orders are taken and paid for at the counter and there is a washing area for to diners clean up their dishes themselves. This café is also located behind a cool bookstore.

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For lunch, El Furniture’s Warehouse offers a meal for only $4.95. Mainly filled with youths keen to watch ice hockey and NFL on TV, this place serves food that is nothing special (think burgers and mac ’n’ cheese) but it’ll fill you up for a few hours of wandering around. Dups Burritos makes tasty Mexican food priced around the $10 mark. For take-out, the renowned Peaked Pies has savoury and sweet options. Got cash to splash for dinner? Head to restaurants like Caramba! and The Keg Steakhouse for higher-end cuisine.

If visiting Whistler in the fall, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need a hot drink to warm your hands. Good cafes include Pure Bread and Moguls. Both are quite popular and hence pretty small when it comes to seating space, but the $5 cake slices look incredible! Moguls also offers many healthy savoury options.

Craving a sweet treat after an active afternoon? The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory will satisfy your needs. A dazzling display of decorated toffee apples, flavoured fudge, chunky cookies and hand-crafted chocolates awaits you. Naturally the prices in this chocolatier don’t match ‘Save on Foods’ and deciding on one item is difficult, but the chocolate chip cookie topped with dark chocolate, caramel, nuts and raisins is so worth that $7. Just be sure to brush your teeth extra well at bedtime… Another place to check out is Hot Buns Bakery for its famous cinnamon buns and crepes, while Cow’s Whistler sells ice cream and milkshakes made fresh in front of your eyes from a Prince Edward Island recipe.

For home-cooked meals, there are two large grocery stores in Whistler Village: IGA in the marketplace and Whistler Village Grocery Store in Village Square.

With so many more dining options available, it wouldn’t be surprising if you spent most of your money on food during your weekend in Whistler…

Ease of Entertainment

Most shops in Whistler cater for hikers, skiers and snowboarders but there are also fashion and jewellery outlets available including GAP, Pandora and Footlocker. Even if, like myself, you’re not into these things, you can still get some fun out of window-shopping the many stores along the Village Stroll.

Picnics can be eaten on the Medals Pavilion next to the Olympic monument. Here kids run around playing games, glamorous moms in ski-based attire drink smoothies… and the odd couple perform yoga exercises. You can observe the activity from the comfort of one of the big chairs.

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Worth a visit is the Squamish Cultural Centre just outside Upper Village. This exhibits First Nation crafts including Totem poles and canoe boats, with plenty of photos illustrating the connection of these people to the land. You’ll find out interesting information, such as the tradition that newborns are given one name at birth before receiving their permanent ancestral one at adolescence. One memorable photo depicted two mountain peaks which represent two princesses who begged their husbands not to engage in a war.  Entry to the museum costs $18.

Whistler is quite the party town, featuring many bistros that turn into cocktail and wine bars; public houses offering locally sourced craft beers; and three nightclubs. Promoters will often be on the street with big smiles inviting people to join their weekly bar crawl. The last BC Transit bus departs at 12.59am. Any later than this and you’ll be needing a cab.

Getting There and Around

Buses through town come regularly. A single journey in Whistler costs $2.50 (as opposed to $1.75 in the smaller nearby Squamish). Save yourself from rummaging in your purse for cash by paying $22.50 for 10 tickets at the visitor centre near the main bus stop. The staff here are bilingual and very helpful with recommending activities tailored to your interests. Free shuttles run to the Marketplace from November to April and from the Village to Lost Lake in the summer season.

If you’re not driving, Greyhound and Pacific Coaches are the main transportation services, taking two and a half hours to/from Vancouver. The latter is more expensive, however it does offer pick-up and drop-off at Vancouver airport and selected hotels.

Whistler to some is, like Banff, too touristy, plastic and expensive. Hosting the Olympics inevitably boosted redevelopment of its commercial face. It’s definitely not like the more simplistic rural Canada I fell in love with, and yes, you are bound to encounter the odd rich  foreign skiing-nut. However it’s definitely worth seeing just for the experience and for the natural beauty that surrounds the village. Don’t feel unwelcome because you haven’t brought your skis with you; come along to Whistler for a weekend and treat yourself to a bit of commercial charm.

 

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Would you like to take this article on the road with you? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Appreciating the Simple Life in Tofino and Ucluelet

It would be easy to say “Is this it?” after arriving in Tofino. Located on Vancouver Island about a five hour drive upland from Victoria (depending on the number of tourist stops taken on the way), you arrive in a small town and it may not be immediately obvious what the appeal is to the mass of tourists that come here. There is no symbolic institution or landmark as such and the view of the ocean offered can be found at many other areas around the island. So what is it that people love so much about Tofino?

The obvious answer is the beaches. There are lots of opportunities to give surfing a go, with Surf Sister being a particularly popular company for girls to learn with. Experienced surfers are tempted by the waves on Long Beach. Those less keen to take a dip can sunbathe amongst the driftwood on quiet Florencia beach, or admire the lovely sunsets on Tonquin beach.

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There’s also plenty of hiking on offer, with various boardwalk  and trail routes available including the Lighthouse Trail, Rainforest Walk and others within the Pacific Rim National Park. These will take you on a journey that features Western Cedar and Hemlock trees, colourful fungi and possibly the odd bear or two.

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But the beaches and these hikes aren’t the main features that set Tofino apart from other coastal towns.

My sister and I stayed in the Tofino Traveller’s Guesthouse on Main Street. It’s a lovely place with a cosy, relaxing ambiance. There was no reception desk which made the atmosphere more welcoming, with the main rule being to take shoes off upon entry. The soft sounds of Bon Iver and Matt Corby played in the kitchen and in the morning, the host would make waffles for everyone. Guests were very chatty with each other. Particularly memorable was seeing a couple in their sixties talking about life aims and societal pressures to a young punky girl who was wearing only a flannel shirt and her underwear. I couldn’t imagine them talking in other, more urban contexts.

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The hostel featured lots of mottos conveying deep meanings. Reading ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story’ made me feel restless and I had a sudden urge to stop thinking too much and just get on with personal projects. A poignant one referred to how people waste time devoting so much of it to something they don’t enjoy under the assumption that this will eventually allow them to do what they do enjoy…but this doesn’t happen. Reading this made me think of city life – how people in high-paying jobs tell themselves they’ll live the mundane office life with the 50 hour weeks just for a few years until they’ve saved enough money to escape to the country and live a restful life of part-time work. But as this lifestyle becomes routine and the income becomes comfortable, many abandon their vision for fear of losing security.

With its sleepy town-feel, Tofino definitely evokes a sense of the simple life. This is the kind of town where you can imagine the owner of the pub is best friends with the guy who runs the hardware store two blocks away, who happens to be related to the doctor at the hospital who is married to the lady who works at the cafe, who herself is sister to the owner of the pub. Friday night bonfires will always be favoured and new faces are welcome. The corporate world is completely alien and nobody is in a hurry. Routine is not regarded as boring but rather a guaranteed source of happiness, even if it doesn’t allow for ‘climbing the career ladder’ as such. Life just flows along at a nice gentle pace and people are content with it being this way.

This is why the fatal capsize of a whale-watching boat in October 2015 was such a momentous event. The sleepy town had to wake up to run an intense rescue operation that strained its resources and relied significantly on the personal initiative of boat-owning residents. It was a huge shock for the town psychologically and practically.

 

Located about 30km away, Ucluelet is even sleepier, with the main attraction on offer being the beginning of the Wild Pacific Trail. Once this had been completed, there was much twiddling of thumbs as my sister and I looked around for something else to fill our time with. We didn’t fancy paying $14 to go inside the small aquarium so went to Zoe’s Bakery and had some tasty carrot cake and frothy hot chocolate. The only other options after this seemed to involve eating more food, which wasn’t necessary.

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Instead we decided to turn up early to our rustic hostel. A wooden path led down to the water where boats dozed on the still surface. Here was a place of tranquility and creativity, and under this influence I found myself pouring out words onto paper.

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In the evening, the hostel manager invited the guests and some locals round for a bonfire. My sister and I got ourselves into a slightly awkward moment when we asked one of the local girls what she did for a living. Mistaking ‘server’ for ‘surfer’, we piped up with remarks of “Oh, cool!” only to unintentionally evoke less enthusiasm when she corrected us. She was from Toronto and I asked what she liked best about living in Ucluelet. She answered me with a frown and a tone that suggested she was puzzled by the question – “Because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” I agree that it’s lovely, but I wasn’t convinced of the credit of this statement. I believe there are many more stunning and unique places in the world that have more character to them.

The guy running the hostel first came here on a vacation from Vancouver and ended up staying for five years. Then he followed a girl to Europe for a year or so, only to return here to remedy his symptoms of withdrawal.

As they sat smoking weed and talking about the funny guy eating fries in the cafe today, I found it hard to relate to these people and understand the appeal of their lifestyle. Sure these small quiet towns were nice detoxes from the busier, more populated world, but did they not get boring after a few months of seeing the same faces and places every day? And if these people did interact with the tourists that come and went, did they not feel a burning sense of curiosity to follow in their footsteps and see more of the world?

However, what is interesting is that these two people in question came from the city to the countryside. They came from urban density to rural seclusion, from an area of domineering social norms to one allowing greater freedom and acceptance of individuality. In some sense one could say they had regressed from life in a fast-moving, technologically advanced setting to a slower, less developed pace. But they were happier in this way of life.

Perhaps that is the appeal of Tofino and Ucluelet; it’s not so much to do with their looks but their humble, quiet characters that welcome anyone and let them be themselves, rather than imposing an identity on them. To entertain oneself in these areas, more emphasis is placed on the environment than on consumer goods, on personal communication over technological sources. Residents might not have as many responsibilities nor make a tonne of money but they’ll likely be happier, healthier and have more time for themselves and others. As snobby as city-based people may want to be about such lifestyles, deep down they are probably a little jealous.

Tofino made me envision a quieter, simpler life – one in which I would have fewer professional accolades but a more care-free routine that gave me time to appreciate the small things in life. I day-dreamed of running a guesthouse for income, writing stories for pleasure and going for daily runs on the beach for leisure. It’s maybe the case that people spend too much time looking for the next big thing to do and not enough time enjoying the present. And so I’ve decided that this is what makes these towns so attractive to those they welcome; they offer an alternative lifestyle that requires so little to achieve.

 

Searching for Nature’s Treasures in Goldstream Provincial Park

Located off Highway 1 just under 20km from Victoria on Vancouver Island, Goldstream Provincial Park is a great stop en route to Tofino and a favoured destination among locals looking for a weekend walk with their dog. Parking is free, toilets are on site, and the staff in the tiny visitor centre will point out the park’s key areas on a map.

Autumn is a lovely time to visit this park as the maple leaves have a wonderful golden glow to them when they catch the sunlight, emitting that wispy wet sound as you wander through them. I spent much time staring at the ground looking for the perfect one to take away with me. Within these lush surroundings, the only fault is the faint sound of traffic from the highway nearby.

As you walk through the tunnel that remains fom the gold rush experienced here in the mid 19th century, you’ll come to Niagara Falls (a much smaller version of its eastern twin!) with a trail beginning on the right. There aren’t many signs so further on you have to follow the sight of flattened soil which highlights a path up to the right. Scramble steeply up and after leaping a few fallen logs, you’ll eventually reach the old railway trestle which, based on the number of Facebook cover photos I’ve seen that feature them, is quite a popular place with island kids.

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The park is most famous for its salmon run which takes place in mid October until December, featuring mainly Chum salmon as well as Coho and Chinook. I saw about 12 salmon struggle upstream to lay their eggs having journeyed from the Pacific Ocean after living there for the past three years. Conquering the current is quite a battle, with splashes erupting sporadically as the fish thrash to move upwards. Nests in the gravel are known as ‘redds’ and are chosen by the female, while the male guards the area. Her eggs, known as ‘roe’ are fertilised by the male after they have been laid. After a new life has been created through all this effort, the salmon will slowly die in the place where they were born. It’s quite the sacrifice! To add salt to the wound (or perhaps highlight the significant existence of the food chain in nature), bald eagles will eagerly feed on their corpses in the spring.

 

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Some visitors will come to the park for a 60 minute refreshing walk; others will spend a day exploring. I did the former but elsewhere in the 366 hectare park you can find a range of rich vegetation including red cedar and arbutus trees, while if you crave a workout there’s the hike up 419m high Mt. Finlayson.

When surrounded by such an abundance of natural goodness, it’s a shame that some visitors couldn’t put their Starbucks cups in the many bins provided in the park. But this is the risk when nature is easily accessible to urban society and the social habits that form within. The park is in close proximity to life in the fast lane, but as photos like this one below show, it’s a great little spot for when you need a breath of fresh air.